Edible Monterey Bay

  • Email
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest



Photo by Rob Cuthrell

Relearning how to live in harmony with nature


To succeed at his job as curator of the California Native Plant Garden at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden, where he has worked for over 20 years, horticulturist Rick Flores has always relied on his green thumbs and his deep love of nature. But his roles as steward of the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program and associate of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust require two good ears, too. Active listening is critical as he partners with members of the Amah Mutsun tribe to rediscover their historical foodways and ecological balance.

Forcibly removed by Spanish missionaries from the coastal grasslands that once covered much of Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties, the Amah Mutsun were enslaved to help build the Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista missions. Denied land ownership after the Spanish conquest, the Amah Mutsun have no tribal land to call their own. Flores says many relocated to the Central Valley to find work. Lacking federal status, they don’t have a magic casino to shower them with cash.

Instead, they are seeking to reconnect with their past, and to the land that once nourished their ancestors. Working with tribal leader Valentin Lopez along with numerous Western history academics, Flores helps curate and cultivate a native plant garden at the arboretum that the Amah Mutsun may access for food and textile resources.

Bay nuts roasting in a basket (photo courtesy Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History)

“Coastal prairies were burned every three to five years to propagate desired species. Woodlands were historically burned every seven to 10 years.”

Manzanita berries being made into cider (photo courtesy Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History)

Some of the food-producing plants in the 40-acre plot include plentiful huckleberries, gooseberries, currants, tanoaks, manzanitas and hazelnuts. “Some tribal members recently picked manzanita berries, which are used for cider and for tea, sweetened with yerba buena,” Flores says.

What’s harder to find are the once plentiful native grasses. “Archaeological evidence shows two-thirds of the diet of the coastal tribes was plant based prior to contact. Seeds were a big part of that. It’s rare to find plants with a big enough population to harvest,” says Flores. He points to invasive species as one reason for grassland decline. The indigenous peoples, though, knew how to combat this.

“Land use skills were needed to increase available food sources,” he says. “Coastal prairies were burned every three to five years to propagate desired species. Woodlands were historically burned every seven to 10 years.” Without the help of fire, coastal grasslands are turning into woodlands filled with non-native species and wildflowers are disappearing. Devastating wildfires throughout our region in August, produced renewed calls for a return to the use of fire to better manage our ecosystem and prevent catastrophic events.

In the garden, which university staff carefully watered throughout the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, Flores plans to add Indian potatoes and wild onions, along with wildflowers, such as red maids, chias and tarweeds. He hopes the interest of the general public through donations and “work and learn” program participation at the arboretum (temporarily halted due to COVID-19), will help the tribe relearn and renew their native traditions, and teach us all something in the process.

Relative newcomer to UCSC, assistant professor Yve Chavez is a native of the Tongva tribe of Southern California. Having grown up on ancestral land associated with Mission San Gabriel, she’s intimately familiar with native culture. As part of the History of Art and Visual Culture Department (HAVC), Chavez teaches undergraduate and upper division courses in California Indian art, and the missions of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the social justice movement has highlighted abuses of the California mission system. Chavez has made it her life’s work to shed light on the contributions of Native tribes to building these missions, and to dispel myths about Spanish influence.

Says Chavez, “California’s first peoples were a vital component of the missions’ labor force. They constructed the churches and other buildings at each of the 21 missions using locally available and imported materials The initial structures at the missions typically consisted of materials that native peoples used in their own structures such as tule and willow, which are plants that still grow in California today. Despite their associations with Spanish colonization and imported architectural styles, the mission churches and structures are unique to California and reflect the knowledge and labor of California Indian peoples.”

An art historian, she appreciates the murals indigenous peoples painted at the missions, which reflect their experiences.

“The wall paintings inside the church at Mission Santa Barbara have been linked to native painters, likely from the Chumash community,” says Chavez. While many original murals were painted over as time took its toll, wall paintings inside the churches at Mission Santa Barbara and Mission San Juan Capistrano are beautifully restored.

A relearning session on indigenous botanical knowledge and the use of native plants.

Much of her research has focused on the artistic legacies of two Southern California tribes: “the Chumash and Tongva, who are neighbors, and have similar material and visual culture. For instance, Chumash and Tongva weavers are known for their coiled baskets,” says Chavez. “Leaders and elders within the Tongva and neighboring communities are working towards educating others about native foods such as pine nuts and chia seeds. The Chia Café Collective, for instance, leads related workshops and classes and even published a book of recipes from Southern California.”

When asked what some of the most important lessons we can all learn from indigenous peoples are, Chavez echoes Flores. “California Indian land stewardship practices, such as controlled burns, are valuable for cultivating California’s natural resources and preventing wildfires.” Chavez mentions that native tribes are actively assisting Cal Fire in wildfire prevention in some parts of the state. Perhaps it is truly time to pay their words heed.

In good news for another local tribe, the Esselen people have regained their former territory alongside the Little Sur River, facing the sacred Pico Blanco peak in the Santa Lucia range. Through partnerships with the Western Rivers Conservancy in Portland and the California Natural Resources Agency, the Esselen obtained a grant to purchase the 1,199-acre Adler Ranch. Funds came from Proposition 68, passed in 2018, that set aside $60 million for competitive grants to acquire Native American natural, cultural and historic resources in California.

The Esselen intend to use the land for ceremonies and educational purposes, and will share it with other Central Coast Ohlone tribes, including the Amah Mutsun and the Rumsen, who also suffered cultural persecution and near extinction at the hands of the Spanish. No permanent structures will be built.

Nature humbles us all with her constant power. Yet, with a bit of human tending, she suffices to nurture the souls of us all, indigenous roots, or not.

About the author

+ posts

Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.